When visiting Flint, Michigan to promote President Obama’s American Jobs Act in October, Vice President Joe Biden touted the jobs bill—specifically, the portion that would give local governments funds to retain police officers—as only he could: “In 2008, when Flint had 265 sworn officers on their police force, there were 35 murders and 91 rapes in this city. In 2010, when Flint had only 144 police officers, the murder rate climbed to 65, and rapes, just to pick two categories, climbed to 229.” There you have it—failure to pass the American Jobs Act, Biden implied, would cause an increase in sexual assault. Biden’s calculus was immediately ridiculed, labeled a gaffe, and attacked from both left and right. The thing is, the spirit of his remarks may have been dead on.
There is substantial evidence linking reduced police forces to an increase in rape and sexual assault, says Camille Cooper, the director of legislative affairs for Protect, a lobbying organization that pushes state and federal initiatives to combat child sexual abuse. Cooper has briefed Biden and his staff about sex-crime prevention efforts on several occasions—both when he was a senator on the judiciary committee and since he has become vice president—and was quick to dismiss Biden’s comparison as a clumsy way of measuring actual instances of rape and sexual abuse.
For one thing, she says, these are extremely underreported crimes, and the number of reported rapes is not a good measure of whether those crimes are being appropriately addressed. The real measure of police success, Cooper explains, lies in detective work—investigations and arrests. Today, Cooper says, many police departments are down anywhere from 10 to 20 officers, which, for many departments, will mean fewer and less-timely investigations. “Police departments are always going to put their men first on patrol. … So other divisions, like investigative divisions, end up with a sort of attrition factor,” says Cooper. “The reality is that fewer police on the job means fewer police to respond to and investigate reported cases of sexual assault,” said Carol Tracy, the executive director of the Women’s Law Project (WLP). “These are very resource-intensive cases to thoroughly investigate.”
So Biden wasn’t entirely wrong, even if he did misplace his emphasis, and his presentation undoubtedly could have been more nuanced. When Biden doubled down on his Flint remarks a week later in Pennsylvania, he only heightened the gaffe. Conjuring a scenario in which a woman is raped because a cop fails to show up on time, he said, “I wish [those opposing the bill] had some notion what it’s like to be on the other side of a gun, or a 200 pound man standing over you telling you to submit.” These words drew fire not only from Republicans, but from women’s advocates, like Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor and a well-known advocate against child sexual abuse: “Biden's willingness to distort the reality of rape for a larger political agenda is particularly disappointing given his long record of safety advocacy.” (It was Biden who introduced the first Violence Against Women Act in 1990, which strengthened investigations and prosecutions of crimes against women. As vice president, he has been a force behind the Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which reinforced colleges’ responsibilities to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault.)
I brought this up to Tracy, searching for the right word to apply to Biden’s remarks: “He’s prone to…” “Hyperbole?” she offered. Police are not a panacea for the crime of rape, Tracy acknowledged, especially since so few victims currently seek police involvement. But for those who do, cutting police resources relegates their trauma to the back burner. Biden may have botched his delivery of that message, she said. “But this is one issue that I give the vice president a lot of credit for. He’ll talk about rape. Very few people are willing to do that.”
Molly Redden is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.